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What if I can’t get a COVID-19 test before my flight to the US?

Jan. 17, 2022
5 min read
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Right now, you need to show either proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery to fly to the U.S. from abroad — but what if you don’t have either? Can you still fly back to the U.S.? Nobody wants to think about it, but travelers should be prepared for the possibility of something going awry during their trip during these uncertain times.

Here’s what you need to know.

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What do I need to fly to the US from abroad?

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

All travelers flying to the U.S. from abroad who are 2 or older, regardless of vaccination status or citizenship, must show negative COVID-19 test results taken within one day of departure. Travelers who recently recovered from COVID-19 can also fly back to the U.S. with proof that they’ve recovered from the virus instead of a negative test as long as the positive test was taken no more than 90 days before their flight’s departure from abroad.

Many travelers don’t know that there is another way to be approved to fly back to the U.S. from abroad if you don’t have a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery. However, you’ll have to meet specific requirements — and you’d better have a good reason for not having a negative test result.

Are there any exceptions?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it may grant a humanitarian exemption on “an extremely limited basis.” This will only happen if a person is traveling to the U.S. for emergency reasons (such as an emergency medical evacuation or if their life is at risk) and can’t get tested before travel.

Travelers who meet the requirements for an exemption should contact the U.S. embassy or consulate, which will then relay this information to the CDC. Keep in mind that there is no guarantee the CDC will approve your request, so you should only consider this option if it’s a true emergency.

What do I need for an exemption?

(Photo by ArtistGNDphotography/Getty Images)

If you’re abroad and need a humanitarian exemption due to a covered situation, you’ll need to ensure you have the correct documentation to make your request.

It’s important to note that the more detailed you are in your request, the more likely it is to be approved. Additionally, all requests must be made in English. Here’s what travelers need, according to the CDC:

  • Name.
  • Passport number.
  • Nationality.
  • Cell phone number.
  • Email address.
  • U.S. destination address.
  • Flight itinerary including airline, flight number, departure and arrival, including any connecting flights.
  • Travelers who are fully vaccinated must provide information such as which vaccine they received and a photo of their vaccination record.

As you can see, this option isn’t for forgetful travelers who didn’t make arrangements for COVID-19 testing before their flight back to the U.S. This is for serious emergencies.

And if you think you can just finesse your way into an exemption, think again. The CDC will require you to document any other solutions you tried before applying for an exemption, like changing your flight or looking for COVID-19 testing. Additionally, travelers must explain why they need to travel urgently to the U.S. and why they qualify for a humanitarian exemption (for instance, if there’s no testing available at their destination).

The CDC says travelers should also be prepared to show documentation that they meet the terms of a humanitarian exemption, such as orders for emergency evacuation.

What if I don’t qualify for an exemption?

(Staff photo by Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

There’s a good chance you won’t qualify for a humanitarian exemption, especially if your situation isn’t an emergency or you simply forgot to get a COVID-19 test ahead of your flight.

If you don’t meet the requirements, then you’ll need a negative test or proof of recovery – and the CDC is pretty strict about this. The agency says, “If you have recovered from COVID-19 but are not able to obtain documentation of recovery that fulfills the requirements, you will need to show a negative COVID-19 viral test result from a sample taken no more than one day before your flight to the U.S. departs.”

That means you should really try to get a COVID-19 test before traveling, whether it's a PCR or rapid antigen test or an at-home test that you can pack in your bag before your trip.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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